The Science Fiction of War
I (mis)spent a large portion of my teenage years devouring science fiction and fantasy novels. One of my favorite authors was and still is Robert A. Heinlein.
Even though Heinlein’s political views drifted toward the Libertarian in later life, I’d have to admit that none of his works had more political meaning for me as a teenager than Starship Troopers.
For those who only saw the film and never read the book, believe me they have little in common. The book deals far more with the moral responsibilities citizens bring to a society. (BTW, for anyone who hasn’t read the book, I’d recommend the synopsis here). He does a much better job of doing it than I ever could.)
Perhaps a quick excerpt will help show how extreme the book really was politically. In the course of the story, the main character Juan Rico remembers a required class on political thinking the had taken. The teacher, Mr. Dubois, explains the origin of duties and rights.
“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ ”
“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”
Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”
“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.
“The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.”
Amazingly, I both agree and disagree with this passage which ended up being a major part of my moral and political compass. I disagree with the first paragraph, as I have said before, I think morality is evolutionarily hard wired; having moral feelings towards family groups allows species do better than ones that don’t have this characteristic. Morality is the basis for duty not the other way around.
On the other hand, I completely agree with the passage about ‘unalienable rights.’ I’ve never been able to buy into the idea that there are rights to anything. There are contracts. There are things that are moral. I can’t believe they are really rights and they certainly aren’t unalienable. (My God! Have I just outed myself as a libertarian fascist?!)
I disagree with the right to vote and think it should be a duty, it’s a moral obligation not a right. It is a moral obligation required by democratic societies; it is not optional.
It is like the ‘right’ to life. This unalienable right would seem to preclude the right to death, the right to take one’s own life; a choice I think is both important and ‘unalienable’. (But please, of course I wouldn’t argue that anyone can take someone else’s life. Personal choices are not societies choices; what works for the one does not scale to the many. Only pregnant women can eat for two for example.)
I always saw that Starship Troopers as the reaction of someone who had seen the patriotic struggle of the Second World War morph into the political morass that was Korea and would become Vietnam. I thought, and still do think, that much was right. And more was totally wrong.
And that’s why, Starship Troopers is always connected in my mind to a second novel, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Where Starship Troopers is the product of patriotism, The Forever War is the product of patriotism distorted and misused. Where the point of Starship Troopers is a just war, a never ending fight for freedom, honor and duty – The Forever War simply highlights the ultimate uselessness of conflict. Haldeman’s classic is perhaps the second pillar in my politial makeup. Together I think the two novels show both the highs and lows of societies.
Maybe if more politicians today would read Haldeman and not Heinlein, we might not be where we are – a world of ‘science
fiction‘ not even Heinlein could have imagined.